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The Story behind the Trench Coat: Deconstruction of an Archetypal Garment

Stany Dederen

MoMu’s collection presentation sheds light on the history of fashion through contemporary and historical clothing, textiles and accessories. The MoMu Collection consists of over 38,000 pieces: to display as much of the collection as possible to the public, the presentation rotates on a regular basis. Right now, the presentation includes a selection of deconstructed trench coats.

A.F.Vandevorst, Spring-Summer 2004
MoMu Collection inv. X973, Photo: Stany Dederen
Raf Simons, Autumn-Winter 2019-20
MoMu Collection inv. X164, Photo: Stany Dederen

The trench coat is an example of a timeless and practical garment. The story behind this article of clothing dates back to around 1820, but the garment got its current name during the First World War, when British army officers would wear this weather-resistant overcoat in the battlefront trenches. A classic trench coat features several distinctive elements. These include a belt that allows you to tighten the coat at the waist, storm flaps across the shoulders and back to direct rain away from the body, and deep pockets to store items - such as gas masks and maps - during the war. You can also recognize a trench coat by its epaulettes on the shoulders and ventilation holes under the arms.

Through a well-considered deconstruction of this archetypal garment, avant-garde designers demonstrate how well they have mastered its patterns, only to then reimagine its construction. Some of them, such as A.F.Vandevorst and Dirk Van Saene, work with unexpected materials, such as paper or leather. Other designers, including Walter Van Beirendonck and Martin Margiela, play with proportions and volumes.

Left: Martin Margiela, Spring-Summer 1984 | Right: Martin Margiela for Hermès, Spring-Summer 2003
Left: MoMu Collection inv. X425 | Right: MoMu Collection inv. X1852, Photo: Stany Dederen
Walter Van Beirendonck, Spring-Summer 2023
MoMu Collection inv. X1855, Photo: Stany Dederen

The collection presentation currently features three trench coats by Martin Margiela. Aside from being examples of deconstruction, the coats also highlight Margiela's career as a designer. One is a sleeveless reinterpretation that he designed before founding his own fashion house. The second trench coat, by Maison Martin Margiela, is ‘oversized’ and belted at the waist by a pair of recycled nylon stockings. The final example dates back to his time as artistic director of the French luxury house Hermès. For Margiela, luxury is by definition timeless and sustainable. He designed transformable garments such as a trench coat that could be worn in different ways. The video, 'Les Gestuelles: Trench', filmed for the exhibition 'Margiela, the Hermès Years', demonstrates the versatility of this garment. Lastly, Raf Simons' silhouette shows how he too incorporated his distinctive signature into a classic trench coat by adding key rings with small figures.

Learn more about the collection presentation here